This contains minor spoilers. Read on for spoiler-filled additional notes.
There’s significantly less Bouton: The Marvellous Medicine Dog in Episode 4 of Outlander’s Season 2 – and that’s partly why it’s a slight disappointment.
Claire confesses to Jamie almost immediately about the fact that Jack Randall is alive – a relief, after what was shaping up to be a lengthy game of how-long-can-we-hide-that-inevitable-secret-to-drive-up-the-tension. But if that suggests that we’re in for a smart hour of TV, La Dame Blanche soon puts that to rest.
Jamie reacts surprisingly to the news, getting all happy and excited about the thought of getting revenge upon Jack and seeing the “blood flow from his body”. And so, the previous episode’s faltering relationship is given a disturbing injection of solidarity, as Jamie finds himself able to get horny once more – because nothing says “dreamboat” like a man who gets aroused by the thought of homicide. That, in itself, is a nice bit of writing, as Outlander returns to its favourite pastime (le sex), but in a way that’s now more disturbing than romantic (no flickering candles and log fires here).
The problem, though, is the dialogue. Outlander has always found its strength in the show’s ability to meld personal conflict with wider situations – marriage and history, trust and politics, sex and, erm, sex in a different time period. But in keeping the book’s intimacy, the show has often struggled to bring Claire to life in a way that works on screen: narration in the book being turned into voice-over has long been an obstacle. Here, though, Claire’s knowledge (of, for example, herbs) and the show’s attention to detail trip the script up, as she comes across more know-it-all than wise – combined with those voice-overs, she’s a self-centred character who can easily border on seeming contrived, not to mention annoying as heck. It’s to Caitriona Balfe’s credit that we have sympathy for Claire at all. Here, though, even she can’t always rescue the character from the lines she’s given to say. (Also, she has the worst taste in baby names ever. Lambert? Really?)
The slight air of artificiality extends through to our favourite French apothecary, Master Raymond, who firstly introduces Claire to his collection of chicken bones (with which he tries to predict the future) and secondly gives her a necklace that changes colour when present. Why? There’s no scientific explanation, which Claire is normally able to use to bring credibility to events. “Magic,” says Raymond, his charmingly mischievous face not quite enough to compensate for the silliness of it all.
A brief brush with Chekhov’s Poison from last week only reinforces the feel of watching something predictable and scripted. Indeed, when we discover that Louise is pregnant after having an affair, there are no bonus points for guessing whom she’s been bonking.
The programme, though, hasn’t lost its ability to weave in subtler personal issues into its narrative – the idea of abortion is raised by Louise and Claire as a matter-of-fact discussion without descending into melodrama. Jamie’s abuse by Randall, meanwhile, is also dealt with within the context of a constructive conversation between husband and wife (even if Sam Heughan’s straight-faced talk of being naked and “hiding under a blade of grass” feels a little too lyrical).
The second half, fortunately, whisks us away from the overwrought, faintly cheese drama into a more appealing slice of subterfuge within a domestic setting – yes, it’s time for a dinner party, riddled with unspoken conflicts.
Inviting Sandringham, Alex Randall, Prince Charles, Louise and Louise’s husband into the same room? It’s a recipe for disaster – and, sure enough, that’s exactly what ensues, as we watch Andrew Gower’s hilariously petulant prince become increasingly drunk and rude, and Simon Callow’s hammy Duke of Sandringham deliver anecdotes with loud arrogance. All the while, Stanley Weber steals every shot he can as Comte St. Germain, who spends his time staring menacingly at Claire, even when sipping soup. The result is an entertaining evening of loaded glances and smirks – the only way to get more side eye on set would be to invite Frank Underwood.
A tragic trip to help with an explosion at the armoury once again brings historical brutality to bear upon our cast, but it’s when Outlander is thinking up other forms of threat (hello to the glowering Comte) that the show really sparkles – especially when it does so with such humour. Nonetheless, with only a biting monkey on offer after last week’s Bouton, La Dame Blanche feels like a notable step down from Episode 3. Here’s hoping it’s not long until the next doomed social occasion.
Outlander Season 2 is available to watch in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Sunday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.
Spoilers and further consideration
– The rape of Mary at the hand of masked brigands in the street can’t help but feel a little like Outlander is repeating itself, after Claire and Jamie’s own assaults. The notable birthmark on one of her assailant’s hands, though, make it clear that this will be a plot point for later.
– More interesting is the fallout that occurs, as Alex Randall stays by her bedside to look after her – only for her to (understandably) freak out when she wakes up and he’s standing over her. Rosie Day’s excellent as the young woman, while Laurence Dobiesz is believably devoted (despite his eerie similarity to Tobias Menzies). The sight of him trying to stop her running hysterically through the home inevitably leads to accusations of him being the guilty culprit – something that Jamie and Murtagh defend passionately with their fists. (Do we really need a brawl right now, Outlander? Would that actually happen?)
– Current working theory: Mary and Alex’s apparently predestined marriage will be a direct result of his suspected involvement in her assault.
– The revelation of Louise’s pregnancy, meanwhile, is less of a bombshell than one might hope – Charles talking about her husband being “the man in the dark”, after he makes an in-joke to her, leaves you struggling to believe that their affair hasn’t yet been spelled out to everyone at the table, but it’s swiftly forgotten in the fact of Alex and Mary’s living room grappling.
– The men assaulting Mary in the street run when they see Claire, calling her “La Dame Blance” (which is where the episode gets its title from), but what does it mean? Do they see her as some kind of witch? And does that mean she’ll be inviting Comte St. Germain found for brunch any time soon? We hope so.
– The promise of the chicken bones that Claire will see Frank again means we’ll be heading back to the future sometime soon. But when?
– More Bouton please.